by Charles Lockwood '70
F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 wrote "There are no second acts in
American lives." I know Fitzgerald is revered, but I think
that he was wrong, particularly when it comes to me.
As a teenager in the 1960s, I became fascinated by history and
architecture, especially old houses. My family lived in a 19th-century
farmhouse in northwest Washington, D.C., surrounded by newer homes
that had been built in the '20s. My parents were history-philes,
and my mother was particularly interested in historic architecture.
The architectural past held me in thrall. I often visited historic
neighborhoods in D.C., and one summer, years before the South's
19th-century neighborhoods were rediscovered, I talked my parents
into visiting still slightly shabby Charleston, South Carolina,
and Savannah, Georgia.
A lover of cities at an early age, I particularly admired 19th-century
townhouses, which to me represented a time when cities were the
focal point of American life. Nineteenth-century townhouse also
evoked for me an urbane and civilized lifestyle, a romantic nostalgia
for "the good old days." Finally, as a teenager who hated
mowing the lawn the promise of a lawnmower-free life.
As a Princeton student in the late 1960s, I devoured New York
Times articles about the bold "pioneers" who were buying
and restoring long-neglected New York brownstones in then run-down
neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Chelsea in Manhattan,
and Park Slope in Brooklyn.
Cutting class lectures as often as I dared, I made daytrips to
New York, where I walked for miles, gazing at the elegant red brick
1820s' and 1830s' Federal-style rowhouses, flamboyant 1850s' and
1860s' Italianate brownstones, and grand 1890s' Renaissance Revival
The more I explored the brownstone neighborhoods, the more I wanted
to know about their architecture and history. On day during the
summer of 1969, I went to the library on West 53rd Street and asked
for a book on New York brownstones.
"We don't have one," the reference librarian said. "It's
never been written."
As I left, I decided to write it myself. That fall, I went to
my faculty adviser, Professor Donald D. Egbert '24, of the art department,
and told him I wanted to write a book about the architectural and
social history of New York brownstones. Without blinking, Egbert
suggested, "Why don't you write your thesis on New York brownstones,
and the book can become an outgrowth of your thesis? You'll have
to learn how to write and research better, but I can teach you that.
And we'll have to get you released from your class schedule, so
you can concentrate full-time on the project, but I can have Dean
Sullivan take care of that."
Having a few years before suffered a stroke, Egbert was nearing
the end of his life-long academic career at Princeton, and I knew
I was lucky to have him for a teacher. One day, when we were together
in his office, he said: "You know, every few years I have a
special student whom I decide to mentor." He mentioned a half-dozen
well-known Princeton graduates, including Thomas Hoving '53 *60,
who went on to become a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York, a magazine editor, and a bestselling author, as well
as Charles W. Moore *57, who became a renowned architect and professor
at Princeton. Egbert then looked at me and said, "You're the
last one I'm going to be able to do this for." Stunned by his
faith in me I worked even harder.
Two other Princetonians also helped: Bob Mayer '70, whose black
and white photographs were illustrated my thesis; and Robert A.
Sincerbeaux '36, a Wall Street attorney and president of a small
foundation interested in historic architecture that gave me a grant
after I graduated so I could turn the thesis into a book.
I was 23 years old when Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row
House 1783-1929, illustrated with photographs by Bob Mayer (McGraw
Hill) was published, and it changed my life. Instead of going on
to law school or becoming a college professor, I embarked on a writing
By the time I was in my mid-30s, I had written six other books
and many articles. But over time I realized I couldn't make a living
writing about architecture and cities. For the last 20 years I've
been a consultant, writing articles and reports for large real estate
companies, architecture firms, and accounting firms on everything
from urban planning to tax laws and the telecommunications industry.
The pay was good, the people fair and pleasant, but as I turned
50 I faced the fact that I wasn't doing what I really wanted to
be doing. The sudden death of one of my Princeton roommates two
years ago was a wake-up call about the shortness of life.
Then, good fortune entered in. Rizzoli wanted to reissue Bricks
and Brownstone in an expanded edition. Working on the new edition
was both a poignant experience many of the people who had
helped me with the original were dead, including Egbert and Sincerbeaux
and also a wake-up call. I was making a good living as a
consultant, but I was far from the path both Egbert and Sincerbeaux
had seen for me.
While I continued both to consult and to work on the new edition,
a friend invited me to breakfast, figuratively grabbed me by the
scruff of my neck, and gave me a good shaking. "People are
spending millions of dollars to buy Manhattan townhouses and huge
sums to restore them," she said. "Architects are doing
only so-so restoration jobs. You've written the only book on this
subject. You're the expert. Why aren't you advising homeowners about
their brownstone's architecture and how to restore these houses
to their original appearance?"
Less than a year later, I'm starting to live my dream getting
paid well to work on what I love most. I am already providing restoration
advice on a number of historic Manhattan and Brooklyn townhouses.
I'm also planning to conduct additional research and write an entirely
new edition of Bricks and Brownstone in the next five years.
New York brownstones were my first love and a life-long
love that I was lucky to find at such an early age, and have
reclaimed today. Encouraged at home by my other half, Carlos Boyd,
by many friends, and by my mother, I am transitioning out of my
consulting practice and building a new career around my passion.
At a time when many of my classmates are getting ready to retire,
I count myself fortunate that I have this opportunity to write a
truly satisfying Second Act.
Charles Lockwood lives in Topanga Canyon in Southern California
and spends much of his time in New York. His web-site is www.charleslockwood.com.